Saturday, January 24, 2015

Rough Draft

You are not surprised when a student or client prefaces reading or sending their material to you with the warning, "This is a rough draft."  Perhaps this is some form of cosmic coming of age for those early years when you sent so much of your longer work out with only the slightest hint of revision, thinking to yourself as you did so, "What the hell, this is on-the-job training."


There are many positive things to be said for on-the-job training, not the least of them the steady production of work, held forth for peer examination.  Better still than on-the-job training, however, these strands of awareness writers must face if they hope to continue the pursuit of their craft.  (1) The stories of other writers that led them to wishing to become writers were far cries from rough draft, (2) There is nothing so daunting as trying to capture the early, hummingbird aspects of story in some coherent form, (3) Even when you think you've nailed it, an outside person will catch one or more glitches you hadn't even realized were there, (4) The outside person may not have the skills or experience of an editor, and (5) At best, if you work hard enough at the telling of your story, you stand a chance of avoiding humiliation.

All right; you've said it.  A thoughtful writer is at risk of humiliation.  Even writers who are not so thoughtful are at risk of failure.  Not all that long ago, September 5 of last year, to be exact, you had a reading and signing appearance at Skylight Books, in Los Angeles.  You were touched that a former student, Gina Nahai, herself a well-published and thoughtful writer, appeared, a warm body in support.  

During the Q and A following your reading, someone asked a question relative to revision and rewriting.  You said, in so many words, "A writer has to learn how to write all over again with each new project, otherwise she or he runs the risk of copying not only the previous works of other writers but the previous works of her or his self."

You saw Gina nod, ask you to repeat that, then write it down.  A few days later, it appeared in her Internet comments about craft.  She was least of all acknowledging your words, most of all recognizing the weight of their implications.  She is living proof of the way a thoughtful writer grows with each new work, facing risks, abandoning tricks that worked once before, finding hidden meanings under the cushions of old themes.

Rough draft means having spotted that hummingbird mentioned earlier, having achieved the state of watching it flit from shrub to shrub, its wings a furious flutter while it takes in its midday snack.  Then rough draft means a quick sketch in which you attempt to convey the entire Ecosystem, the glorious, iridescent bird, burning calories at a furious rate, seeking sustenance and, in the process of working at its own survival, transporting bits of pollen from shrub to shrub.  Their lifespan is three to four years, one notable example from a banded hummingbird that lasted nearly twelve years.

What you see, do, and understand, at first on levels not of entire clarity to you, work their way into this rough draft, which you bid yourself to pursue with as little thought and as much instinct as you can muster.  In this manner, your rough draft becomes a matrix for thought, for associations, for infusion of such qualities as theme, obstacles, focus.

This has happened to you:  During early moments, you are feeding on endorphins much the same way the hummingbird is feeding on nectar, the occasional bug or nit.  The wings of such craft as you have are aflutter as you dart from impression to impression, trying to hone this rough draft into something tangible, somethings that appears like a recognizable story, but, of course, not too recognizable, otherwise you would be copying, describing instead of composing.

About midway through, you shift metaphor to another of great familiarity to you, one for which, for some years, you ate with great gusto large platesful of pasta with lobster, the pasta, of course, the carbs a distance runner needs, and the lobster, loaded with glycogen, an aspect of glucose, used to store energy enough so that you will not experience the "hitting the wall" experience described by distance runners about those moments when their energy stores are gone and the body now has little recourse except to begin feeding on its own muscles.

Another time for comparisons between hitting the wall when writing and the same experience when running.  Suffice it for now to say there can be that mid-point moment of doubt, when you are devastated by the sense that this particular project has no merit, that you have stirred an unfriendly pot that needs no stirring, that you have embarked on a trip to a destination dumber to your tastes than Bakersfield or Disneyland.

You do not use these examples lightly, although you do use them to make fun of yourself.  You have been in Bakersfield and Disneyland.  You would be content to live out the remaining years of your lifespan with no additional visits to either.  They have become metaphor for failure, misdirection, humiliation.
How could you ever think to write something meaningful about hummingbirds?

Never mind that hummingbirds was an extended metaphor in the first place. Mind instead that you have moved beyond your boundaries and, like the experiences of dogs, when they encounter invisible electronic fences, yelp with the sudden, unexpected shock of the electric current meant to keep you from straying.

Days pass.  In some cases, months or even years, before you can bring yourself to look at the rough draft.  Doing so, you begin to feel the tingle again.  There are some good details here, ideas, themes.  If they were arranged properly, they might be able to carry weight.  In fact, isn't this paragraph right here a splendid example of the in medias res opening?  Couldn't you do something to make this character a bit more of a loner?  Couldn't you...

Rough draft.  Yes.  But.  Some writers you're aware of never stop revising their work.  Not only poets.  Remember the term "variorum" that so intrigued you those years back when you were the student.  All known varieties of a text, right?

True enough, life is also a rough draft.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Notes from the Undercurrent

For as long as you can remember, you have enjoyed collecting things,  Your earliest interests were marbles whose swirls of color and patterns impressed you to the point where you had a separate cigar box for those you would not risk playing, lest you should lose them in the give-and-take of marble-shooting games.  

Another early collection piece were the small pictures of airplanes that came as premiums in Wings, a now-defunct brand of cigarettes. Most of these airplanes were civilian, single-engine, seating two or three persons, evoking for you life styles and adventures you were sure awaited you in your future.

There is scarcely a time in your life when you did not collect something, including an enormous hoard of cereal boxes and an extensive collection of the old so-called pulp magazines popular during the '20s, 30's, and 40s, giving way in the 50's to magazines called "slicks,"with a smoother, coated paper.  

For at least the past thirty years, you've amassed a collection of fountain pens, the older models having an interior rubber sac to hold the ink, the more modern ones having a plastic filling and ink holding device.  No cartridges for you.

Yet another thing you collected brings you back to grammar school, and one of the bright spots of junior high school, which was being sent to the boy's vice principal to cure some deportment issue.  Your target in this context was words.  With not much thought to naming the process, you were starting to build a vocabulary.  As well, you were developing an idiosyncratic like for some words and an out-of-hand dislike for others.  

You can still recall a note from a grammar/composition teacher, "I have asked you not to use this word."  The word in question was not of the sort you learned in locker room or lunch-under-the-bleachers contests.  It was a word you liked the sound of, its meaning relating to a pleasing, perhaps even happy and jaunty attitude.  You argued that the word--tantivy--had for you an onomatopoeia, which is another word you liked.  "Nobody,"  the teacher said, "uses tantivy.  It is archaic (another word you like).  You should try to use words people will know."  Your answer to that, with another word you like, got you sent to Mr. Engberg, the boy's vice principal.  "Why?"

Mr. Engberg wore tweed suits which you admired, assuring yourself you would some day have one or two of your own.  He often set you to work by giving you a letter of the alphabet, then challenging you to recall from memory fifty words beginning with that letter.  You would often drag out the assignment to coincide with the bell, ending the class from which you'd been sent.  Those hours in Mr. Engberg's outer office were among your favorites of those years.

Now, it appears you've begun yet another ad hoc notebook, this one for single words. These are special words, reflective of your interest in story.  Some words arrest your attention now by they way they seem to bursting with the potential of story.  When you see or hear such words, they bring to your mind summer berries, plump with juicy intent.

Incident is such a word; it is already in the notebook, suggesting itself to you as an armature about which such incident synonyms as event, episode, adventure, experience, confrontation, contingency, and that pure, unvarnished story-word, scene.

You don't even have to close your eyes to see two or more characters, perhaps entire families or institutions, meeting in an incident where, because of the mere extent of their numbers, something dramatic, precipitous, and antagonistic is bound to take place.  What is a story, after all, without incident?  And what are incidents without characters.

Of course, if you are going to have a notebook with such provocative words as incident and episode, and confrontation, you should probably have another ad hoc notebook for the characters to embody these attributes and qualities.  You will begin this notebook with a name that has been rumbling about your head for some time now, Gordon Smirke, a name filled with agenda and mischief that may not be intentional.  At the moment, he seems to be an Englishman who is pretending to be an Australian.

Incident.  Gordon Smirke. Hooray.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Buzz Words, Code Words, and Flim-Flam

When you walked away from the university, you did so with the belief that it was for good.  Sad farewell, and all, but time to set forth into an unknown that was yours and yours alone.

There were  few or any limitations to your unknown, other than a a plan to pursue the writing career you'd set your heart upon.  You hoped this plan would lead you to a life in which for the most part you wrote things, took time to read and engage other things, then set forth to write other things, most of them exploratory and/or contentious.

Least of all did you expect to return to the university, either the specific one you worked your way through, or any other. Nor did you, nearly twenty years later, assume any of the things you'd done in the interim--the kinds of no upward mobility, high risk jobs many writers take--would lead you in that direction.  

One of your favorite writers, for instance, worked as a hot tar roofer, while another spent time as a gandy dancer. This is not to digress into accidental vectors, which you have spoken of before, nor of Fate, nor even of some unconscious desire to return.  You were as surprised to be back as anyone in your immediate circles of friends and family.  You even surprised some of those who were to become your faculty mates. 

A man who was to become your first department chair, said at one point in your hire, "Of course you'll be using E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel as your text, so I'd better inform the bookstore."  To which you replied, "Of course."  You knew who Forster was, but you had no idea he'd written anything beyond A Passage to India.

All too soon, you learned that Aspects of the Novel was in fact a series of lectures given at a university, which made you suspicious--until you read the work, then read it again.  Since those early days, Aspect has been on the recommended list in any number of sylabi for any number of coursers given at any number of colleges, a fact that is oblique in addressing your subject here, which came to you earlier in the day while reading a review of a new book by a literary critic.

The triggering event was your encounter with the term "free indirect style," which is often intended as a synonym for "free indirect discourse/"  You consider both designations academic or literary theory terms for "interior monologue," which you've heard and yourself used in university classrooms.  Interior monologue does not set your own sensibility sirens to jangle; it is a direct, useful term for an important narrative tool.

When a character uses interior monologue, he or she is performing the simultaneous tight-rope-walking act of filtering the narrative of the story, while making it seem as though these observations are an integral dramatic path into the story, led by the character, with no noticeable help from the author.  In proper context, "This would be a good place to start" can be seen as interior monologue.  

The line is rendered as though a character, one filtering the story to us, is thinking it.  You could see yourself using the sentence in this manner.  "How, she wondered, to begin such a daunting task?  She picked up one of the file folders. This would be a good place to start,"

These paragraphs are intended as a growing rumble about academic and literary concoctions of terms, which you view as attempts to create a language similar to street languages devised by children, which allow them to communicate information they do not wish to share with parents or other authority figures. 

In its way, academic and literary terms remind you of the famed British rhyming slang your great pal, Digby Wolfe, tried to teach you, and the language used by carnival workers, allowing them to do the same thing in front of "marks," those who were "not with it," or of the family of "carneys," those enterprising men and women who sell adventure for twenty-five cents at the time of your presence.

There are, you argue, enough straightforward terms in the world of story, without adding conceptual filters.  In addition, there are enough differing voices and approaches to storytelling to keep the medium at full flourish for hundreds of years. Deconstruct- ion.  Post-colonialism.  Gender theory.  Marxist theory.  Feminist theory.  Modernist.  Expressionist.  May you all flourish, but let's not forget the basics, beginning with characters who itch and writhe with the pent-up desires to go somewhere they've not been, or who discover a treasure or secret, or who have a sense of some restriction not being fair.  Then they set off to do something about it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wanted: Entertaining Writer. Must Have Experience with Failure

Out in the real world, where thousands of adults pay extraordinary sums of money to watch millionaires play  hockey, football, and baseball, while yet other millionaires wearing short pants attempt to make a contact sport of basketball, such forces as friction and inertia qualify with ease as opposing forces.

These forces--friction and inertia-- slow down or stop other bodies from such possibilities as entering orbit, striking a target, or the more generalized conclusion of making a meaningful contact.

Deep within the alternate worlds of story and drama, opposing forces are often represented by characters who, according to their individual identity take on the metaphoric mantle of such cultural and moral identities as convention, tradition, wisdom, and as a useful standby, common sense.

The outer world can and often does run on specious logic as well as tradition, both of which are given wide broadcast as common sense.  Often, there is no need for opposing forces in the warp and weft of the outer world; laziness, stupidity, and stubbornness will suffice.

Story and drama are other matters; both require the tangible presence of one or more opposing forces.  Both give the protagonist(s) targets to aim at, competitors against whom some show of contention must be made before the reader can accept anything resembling positive results.

If you prefer, you could say opposing forces join hands with failure as a part of the risk any protagonist character must face, if only to insure the presence of story.  Another way of looking at this calculus is to expand the relationship between goal of choice and the inability to achieve that goal. This is, of course, failure.

The best failures are systemic rather than individual.  You believe antagonists tend to put more faith than they ought into systems, not enough in individuals.  Tragic as a failed system may be, you see a greater disappointment and bankruptcy in the individual who feels betrayed by the system.  Unless that individual has another significant system in which to seek refuge and/or solace, he or she is truly alone, and must begin a new search to find landscape if not comfort in that new, unexplored terrain.

When a character wonders if she's good enough, the approaching footsteps of failure may be heard, echoing through the halls, which, to extend the metaphor, come closer, perhaps even to the point of whistling a familiar refrain.  Only when failure becomes as plausible an outcome as success does the story have a chance for working its way past the border guards of believability, at which point the reader once again abandons skepticism.

Sad, but true, a lifetime of reading produces what you call here a reverse cynicism.  When you read or watch a story in which the protagonist is risking something to attain a goal, you pretty well know the protagonist is going to be successful.  

This means your expectations for this being a successful story depend on the ultimate prize the protagonist realizes.  If there is not some surprise connected with the outcome, then So what?  Who cares?  If there is a significant enough surprise, the characters, readers, and writer will accept with good cheer and enthusiasm the fact that this is, indeed, story rather than parable or propaganda tract.

Most of the contest stories we've read provide a satisfying payoff beyond the fact of the protagonist winning some contest.  The payoff is effective because of the strategy the protagonist used to win, or because the protagonist does something remarkable in the face of failure that overshadows and undercuts the failure, making it second banana to some implicit or explicit understanding.

There is no disputing or disagreeing with the notion of story as entertainment.  Nor, however, is there dispute or disagreement with the goal you set for story, which is to take us all--characters, readers, and writer--somewhere we have not been before, whence we make some discovery, then attempt to transport it back in time to the moments of first reading.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Why? Because? Because Why? Because I Say So.

Sir Isaac Newton was a physicist rather than a dramatist, but his observations about forces in motion stand up as well in the art of drama as they do in the science of the behavior of matter.  Consider:  For every action, there is a reaction that is equal in force and opposite in direction.

Writers have been taking the tangible results of that observation to the bank or the grocery store or the corner pub since before written language, before movable type, before the days when writers and actors had any thought about payment for their efforts.

Activity causes a tangible response.  You spend long enough digging a hole or working on a story, you're on target for a backache.  You dig the hole in the wrong place or make the story reflect some aspect of the human condition too painful for most in the audience to process and the likelihood increases for you to come away with a headache.  

One example is sufficient to illustrate the point:  In 1899, a writer of stunning insights and narrative technique produced a novella called The Awakening, published to uniformly negative reviews.

Not only was this a demonstration of action producing a reaction in physical terms, as well, The Awakening triggered a set of responses among some women readers that transferred itself across the generations, influencing stories to come and personal behavior.

In E. M. Forester's Aspects of the Novel,  one of the early--and best--books about the physics and mechanics of the novel, Forester had insightful things to say about the dramatic force he referred to as causality.  Things do not happen in haphazard randomness; they happen because of earlier actions taken--or rejected--by a character.  One forceful writer managed to demonstrate both the action taken and the action declined in two works that have long outlived him and will no doubt continue to do so.  

The longer of the works presents us with a character who recognizes his fast-approaching state of depression, prompting him to something he;s done before under such circumstances.  He signs aboard a ship as an able bodied seaman.  For his reward, the captain of the ship, The Pequod,  turns out to be a megalomaniac.

Herman Melville's short, pithy account of a character who acts by refusing to act, Bartleby the Scrivener, is in its way as disturbing as Moby-Dick.  Wherever we, or you, turn, literature does not begin with an eruption of spontaneity; it begins with a character who wants something, wants it now.  That desire is enough to provoke the character's quest or someone else's questions and probing to the point where the character under examination responds.

If a work of dramatic narrative lacks the inner quality of causality, it cannot be considered story because of the way story has evolved as an individual on some quest or having made some discovery.  The short, pungent short story by Tobias Wolff, "Bullet in the Brain" provides an excellent example of how the short form has evolved over time.  A book critic enters a bank to make a deposit, a quest not significant for being extraordinary.  Fate and the author have conspired to address that matter.

The protagonist is already growing impatient with the persons in line ahead of him and the time needed to complete their transactions when we learn in no uncertain terms that the bank is being robbed.  One of the bandits is every bit as impatient as the protagonist, who is arrogant enough, foolish enough, and sarcastic enough to begin laughing.

How easy is it to observe how story is strands of relevant detail, wound about the armature of causality?  Quite easy; each wrap of detail begins to push the resulting dramatic payoff toward an acute goal.

A detail within a story needs to have somewhere in its fanny pack a measure of causality, the ability to precipitate, if not directly cause, the next action.

When you think about such things, you can't help wondering what kind of storyteller Sir Isaac would have been, and you take the matter even farther on occasion by keeping his observations in mind as you consider the options before characters of your contrivance.  

Objects in motion, Sir Isaac observed, tend to stay in motion, until they are confronted by a force greater than their velocity.  We know what that force is in physics.  Inertia.  In dramatic writing, we call that opposing force such things as description, explanation, and that most oppressive inertia of all, defensiveness.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Wide-Open Spaces, and the Stuff in between

Every time you engage in the composition of a story, something quite serious tries to take advantage of your focus.  The "something" begins as conceptual, but soon--quite soon--emerges with a life all its own. Alas, you well know how things with a life of their own are idiosyncratic in their determination.

The "something" you refer to here is Space, which springs to life as the first tentative paragraphs gain some traction, acting like a cat with cabin fever, looking for a way out.  This may or may not be a prudent move for a cat; it is never prudent for Space.

You've had enough experience with cats in your lifetime to understand the how if not the why of their wanting in, if they are outdoor cats, and out, if they are indoor cats.  Perhaps they want the reverse as well, and have only to gain one to understand how they yearn for the other. Perhaps all but the most mild of cats is hardwired to a contrariness when the matter of in or out becomes an issue.

In its personified form, Space, like the cat, wants to reveal its presence to you, stretch its limbs, make room for details you mistake at first for those welcomed allies,dramatic activity and information.  Still in personified form, Space is in effect arguing on its own behalf, wishing to co-opt the shape and size of the landscape on which your story is best presented, reminding you of a conflation between a real estate salesperson and a purveyor of used cars.

Garrulous and controlling to a fault, Space wishes to turn your sentences of ordinary length into Faulknerian meander and reverie, your short stories into novels, your novels into trilogies, your reviews into discourses, your essays into bodies of law and procedure.  

Space wishes to expand tourist-class airline accommodations into divans, those abbreviate cafe tables into trenchers or the groaning boards associated with family gatherings at times where ritual behavior comes spilling forth.

Your regard for Space is uneasy, seeing it at once a seductress and a potential cohort in some narrative tort that only drastic excision can cure.  In most cases, you've followed your personal system of using detail to pry the stuck and warped doors away from the jambs in which they are wedged.  With doors open, cats and associations can come and go in either direction, leaving you at the mercy of unfiltered association.

Next step, you are wide open to vulnerability, reminders of the unedited confidence you had in the early years before you began seeing the slight flaws in your ability to assess individuals, circumstances, and an array of inanimate items you thought you wanted or knew or both.

You're quite sure you were not the first to have said "Write long, then cut short," although you would like to have been the one.  You do in fact write long early drafts, then go about returning entire paragraphs at a time to the limbo whence they came, with sentences from your favored writers and poets sounding counterpoint to your baroque and orotund output.  

If you look closely, you can find traces of Richardson, DeFoe, and Fielding in your locutions.  Just as you tell yourself this is not so awful a thing, perhaps even a good thing, since you have learned things from each of these worthies, traces from the nineteenth century bubble up, bearing with them a hint of the long forgotten Miss Ravenal's Conversion, and of course the ongoing battles with formality in Fanshawe and The Scarlet Letter, or, indeed, the prose so opened to Space of Hawthorne's younger friend, Herman Melville.

You are happiest of all when you see your Space jammed with the mischief of the nineteenth century writer who was not so much of the nineteenth century as he was a writer of most people, most classes, and the most egregious customs to take on, Mr. Clemens.  To this day, you find discovery, attitude, and concern in his Spaces, along with the willingness to wrestle to the ground anything that got in his way.

You nod in continued amazement that such a man could have written so much engaging material, producing such a relatively low percentage of misdirected work.  But then, as you look at the misdirected work, even there you see the places where at first he had some control over the Spaces, before they got away from him.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Wind Me up, Wind Me down

Time plays a lead role in any narrative, does more things in a story than many of the characters can accomplish. This fact alone sets up a competition involving time, the character, and the reader. If the reader does not recognize this contest on some level, time will run out before the story does, leaving the characters to fend for themselves on unread pages.

"It can't be over,"  a character will complain.  From the context, a familiar anguish of something happening all too quickly allows us to impart our own experiences with such events into the story at hand.  Based on context and reader experience, the incident will be haunting in its sadness or hilarious in its humor.

There it is:  Time is the setting against which story is placed, a wind-up toy, if you will, that flaps about in plain view of all until its momentum has run its course.  Without the counterpoint setting against time, story risks the danger of becoming explanation, even though it wishes with some intensity to be action.

From the moment the lead character steps into the narrative--often in the first sentence--the race with time has begun.  The lead character wants something, has perhaps already fired the starting gun.  

Even one of your most favored characters, Sisyphus, doomed as he is to a repetition of the same task for all eternity, wants the rock to come to rest or, wanting a few moments of rest himself, wants the rock to begin rolling down the hill.

Here are some of the many qualities inherent in time:  Time lags, quickens, flies, drags, ticks, lurches.  On the other hand, it is impatient; does not wait, which pretty much says much of what can be said relative to durations.

You, the characters you read, and the characters you create, can and often do cause time to pass unnoticed, because of your steep immersion in some activity.  By growing impatient yourself, you are sending body language to meet time at some halfway point, then tell it to give the appearance of slowing down.

Best get a handle on the historical era in which the time of the story is passing, and the amount of time you've allotted for a particular scene to take place, then make some adjustment by removing or adding space.  Setting is important, if only to avoid historical anomalies, such as Juliet saying, "Yo, Romeo," or, instead of "Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore,'" you'd use, "Goes the dude Raven, "Later, man."

Best also to think about an effect you're trying to establish, such as panic or emergency, which you'd do by shortening sentence length, perhaps even to the point of having characters speak in incomplete sentences.  Yet another desired prompt, delay the outcome as long as possible.  How many Victorian novelists, whose narratives appeared in monthly installments, learned to build a readership in this fashion.

Time's close cousin, timing, gives us a closer sense of who the speakers are in an exchange, what, if any, subtexts they are implying, and which dynamics are in play as the characters exchange what could be mere information, insults, double entendre, respect, or outright disdain.  

Timing is more than the way the character speaks the line; timing becomes the voice in which the line is spoken.  In this manner, something as innocent as "Nice to meet you," or "Nice to see you," or "Good of you to say so," can be devastating in its potential irony.

We don't want the lead character to get caught burglarizing the antagonist's office or apartment.  Unless we dislike the parties involved, we do not want the eloping lovers to be caught by either or both sets of parents, who are all for a big, expensive wedding that will in all probability leave enough scars on the couple to be that they will need hours of therapy or counseling.

Nor do we wish to ignore the importance of time or timing in closure, which is to say those moments where some form or revelation, understanding, or agreement is reached that will let all concerned know the story has come to an ending.

Of course there is this:  Too much time and the characters seem to be reading their lines, but without much conviction.  We become more painfully aware that the point of closure has been reached, then passed over; we are also aware the Titanic has struck icebergs, the ship of story is doomed to sink in the whirlpool of boredom.

Better by far to leave too soon than stay too long.  If you leave too soon, your departure may puzzle some, but you will be missed. Stay too long at the party and you'll get stuck helping with the clean-up.